Did you know that the Galápagos Islands are named after getting their giant tortoises? The word “Galápagos” means saddle, and when Spaniards came to the islands they found that the tortoises’ shells resembled saddles or “galápagos.”
There are two groups of tortoises which can be distinguished by the shape of their shells: domed shell or saddleback. Their shells depend on the habitat where they live: tortoises that live on islands with less precipitation are smaller than those that live on islands with more rainfall. Dryer islands have less vegetation which is likely to be higher off the ground (like the cactus that has the fruit on top) therefore saddlebacks have a long neck and long limbs. On the other hand, domed shell tortoises live in areas where vegetation is abundant and there is more variety on the ground.
These huge animals can reach 5 feet in length and their average weight is 475 pounds (215 kg). During the month of August, female tortoises migrate to arid zones to lay their eggs. Now that the mating season has come to an end, tortoises have to find a safe and dry area to nest. Nesting period goes on through the cold season from late July to November. Throughout this period, tortoises can lay eggs from 1-4 times! Saddlebacks usually lay 2-7 eggs and domed-shells lay from 20-25 eggs.
Giant tortoises are endemic to the Galápagos Islands, and depending on the species they are listed as either vulnerable or critically endangered in the IUCN Red List. During the 17th-19th centuries, excessive hunting from pirates, whalers, and merchants decreased the population of giant tortoises in quantities exceeding 100,000. This resulted in the loss of 4 subspecies (from 15 to 11 subspecies).
Only a few years ago we witnessed the loss of Lonesome George (believed to be the last of his kind) who died at 100 years old. Luckily, the Galápagos National Park is now completely devoted to the conservation of giant tortoises and engaged in efforts to repopulate. Don’t miss the opportunity to meet these extraordinary creatures!